Why does a light switch move up to turn on the light? (And why do we say "turn on" the light?)

I read a great book last night called "The Psychology of Everyday Things" by Donald Norman. It's actually an older book that explores what works and what doesn't from a usability perspective. That's interesting to my group since we are in charge of the management tools in SQL Server. One of the interesting studies he spoke about was around the light controls in your home. In the first incantations of light controls wiring was set up throughout the room in a simple linear line with a blade "switch" that you moved to contact the current to the lightbulb. In the south of America where I come from, we still say "cut on" the light from that idea of a "cut" switch. As time went on, a rotary dial replaced the switch, and you "turned on" the switch to make the bulb shine. Both paradigms were evenutally replaced with the familiar light swtich. We expect the sun to be overhead, and so we think that moving the switch upward should cause the light to shine. It's just natural - we are taking our cues from the world around us. You don't have to explain a light switch, it just works intuitively.

In our designs, we are thinking about these things all the time. I'm hoping to integrate more of this "real world" thought patterns into our Management tools - buttons are for pushing, levers are for pulling, objects are for moving, and so on. I hope to make the Management experience as natural as you think it should be.

Comments (4)

  1. Charles says:

    If it is instinctive to move the switch up to turn the light on, why do we move it down in the UK? :-) To me it seems instinctive to press down to make the contact…

  2. Brendan says:

    Here in Australia it always seemed just as natural and inevitable that you moved the light switch down to turn it on.

  3. BuckWoody says:

    Ha!  So it seems to be cultural – which makes it even more important to know your audience.

  4. Light switches are different in Europe and US.

    In Europe, the light switch is really a button with the extremities raised and which flips on around its center point (like the power source switch that PCs used to have). It gets pushed on an extremity and, when off, the lower part sticks out and has to be pushed to turn on the light. In US, the light switch is a little stick that sticks like a little lever and that you flick up or down (down is off). It’s similar to the switches from old electronic equipment or to those from an airplane cockpit. So they look and work differently.

    I don’t know why the European switch is pushed down, but when I have a choice of how to keep switches off here in US, I prefer to leave them up, so I can turn them on by moving my hand down, as I would do in Europe.

    I think the sun explanation is bogus, because you could also think of the light as shining down on you, so you would want to make a similar move to cause "the repro" ;)

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